How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
A new model of social organization is taking shape in the Kurdish areas of northern Syria. Rojava, as it is known, comprises three cantons in the western section of the historical homeland of the Kurdish people, which is now divided up among Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. In terms of social equality, ethnic pluralism, and antisectarianism, the territory is a regional standout. That is especially the case when it comes to women’s advancement.
Western public attention began to turn to Rojava in 2014 and 2015, when the territory’s militias, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), played a central role in ousting the Islamic State, or ISIS, from Kobani, a city in northern Syria. Observers latched on to two features of the group: first, its success against ISIS, which U.S.-backed Iraqi security and Syrian opposition forces had struggled to defeat, and second, the prominence of female fighters in its ranks.
Since World War II, female guerrillas have taken part in armed struggles around the world. Yet most militant groups have enlisted females because they needed more soldiers, not because they wanted to empower women, and few have prioritized women’s equality as much as the Turkish and Syrian Kurds.
Rojava’s emphasis on the leading role of women, however, is not confined to the military. It defines the Syrian Kurds’ broader societal vision. Forty percent of the members of any civil society or governing body in Rojava must be female. Similarly, all administrative organs, economic projects, and civil society organizations are required to have male and female co-chairs. Although the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is dominant in Rojava and Kurds form the majority of its population, Rojava is home to a number of other political parties and ethnicities. It is the only society in its region that draws on the strengths of its entire population. How have women managed to gain so much power in the middle of a war for survival?
A REGIONAL EXCEPTION
The story begins in Turkey in 1978, when the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded to push for an independent Kurdish state. In the early years of its insurgency against the Turkish government, the PKK was led mostly by male guerillas. But that changed in the 1990s, when a broader Kurdish civil resistance emerged in Turkish cities and Kurdish activists began to push for representation through a parliamentary party, the People’s Labor Party (HEP). In both endeavors, women served as leaders. Leyla Zana, a former HEP member, still serves in Turkey’s parliament.
By 1993, according to the journalist Aliza Marcus, one-third of the PKK’s new members were women; many of them were recruited by Sakine Cansiz, one of the group’s founding members. In 1995, the PKK formed a women’s army, which is now called YJA-Star. The resolution establishing the army made clear that it would serve as a model for other women’s organizations “in all sectors of the economy, all social institutions, and even in the realm of culture.” The provision was especially striking for the fact that, in rural Kurdistan, the subordination of women—through such misogynistic practices as so-called honor killings, enforced seclusion, and child marriages—has long been the norm. For many Kurdish women, leaving their families to join an insurgent group was an enormous break from patriarchal tradition. Women guerrillas thus pioneered a women’s liberation movement within Kurdish society as a whole.
Some of Rojava’s leaders, such as the PYD co-chair Salih Muslim, were originally Syrian members of the PKK, and many of the ideals that have been put into practice in Rojava were first tested in Turkey. Since the PYD’s founding in 2003, women’s liberation has been part of the party’s program. It set up Yekitiya Star, its organizing arm for women, in 2005. In 2012, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew his troops from much of northern Syria and the Rojava cantons became effectively autonomous, the PYD’s female members began to organize more vigorously, making women’s defense an integral part of their war against ISIS. The organization soon began to recruit new members from the region’s other ethnic groups, including Assyrians, Arabs, and Yezidis.
The group, which changed its name to Kongreya-Star earlier this year, describes itself as an umbrella organization for Rojava’s women’s movement. At the local level, Kongreya-Star comprises a number of organizations, known as women’s communes, which operate in parallel to the mixed-sex communes that manage such matters as the allocation of energy and the use of public space. The women’s communes focus on domestic violence, forced marriage, and women’s health and economic programs, among other issues; in many cases, they can overrule their mixed-sex counterparts. Kongreya-Star’s higher-level committees manage five areas: education, especially adult education and literacy classes; public health, including specialized clinics for women; the economy, including the management of cooperatives; community dispute resolution, which includes mediation and the management of shelters for victims of domestic violence; and citizen’s defense, which is central to the PYD’s platform and especially to that of Kongreya-Star. There are three women’s defense forces in Rojava: the YPJ, which fights external enemies such as ISIS; the local security forces; and the civil defense forces attached to the communes, which handle neighborhood safety, including cases of violence against women.
AUTONOMY AND DEMOCRACY
The rising influence of women in Syrian Kurdistan is a central part of the broader transformation of Kurdish politics there and in Turkey. Unlike the Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian and Turkish Kurds have moved away from nationalism. They instead seek local autonomy under a federal arrangement. The long-term idea is to secure democratic, decentralizing constitutions that provide for extensive local autonomy and protect human rights. (This shift has run in parallel with the ideological evolution of the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, a former militant who now is an advocate of what he has termed democratic confederalism.)
In light of the region’s current turmoil, Rojava’s vision for a feminist, directly democratic society may seem unrealistic. Yet the failure of the negotiations to end the Syrian civil war has shown the limited capacity of diplomacy to put an end to conflicts inflamed by nonstate actors and funded by outside powers, and in recent decades, there have been few political models in Kurdistan’s neighborhood that seem to offer as much promise for egalitarianism and peace as what the Kurds call democratic autonomy.
So far, the United States has treated the Syrian Kurds as a short-term ally and given them military but not overt political or economic support; Washington did not insist that they take part in the Geneva talks to end the war in Syria. This approach is a mistake. Since the 1990s, the United States has positioned itself as a defender of women and sexual minorities. The Syrian Kurds are practicing a form of democracy that enshrines gender equality and opposes zero-sum notions of ethnic and national rights. Given its stated commitments, the United States should be willing to support those ends.